Father Steve examines the Church’s practice of abstinence and fasting as a means to support the demands of our mission in Christ. This article is a first in a series of reflections offered by the Word on Fire staff in regards to the Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
A few months ago, my good friend Ben Wellenbach, who is an athletic trainer extraordinaire, challenged me to clean up my diet. Now, here’s the thing about that—I am not someone who would be inclined (at least at this point in my life) to diet so as to lose weight. I exercise regularly and do so (I would like to think) with the ferocity of a trained athlete. For me, physical training is as integral to one’s capacity to serve the Church’s mission as a priest as is fidelity to the promises of the priestly state of life, intellectual curiosity, and dedication to the practices of prayer. Ben invited me to change my diet because he observed that what training I did accomplish would remain at a status quo level until I modified my diet.
Anyone who has ever met me knows that there is something amusing about Ben’s recommendation: my favorite foods are oatmeal and broccoli (eaten separately of course). I am not a gourmand, and I eat mostly for energy or to take away the hungry feeling rather than to indulge in pleasure of savory treats. You won’t find me loading up on desserts at the Old Country Buffet. The amount of processed foods I was eating at the time of Ben’s recommendation would probably be, for most folks, considered austere.
What precisely would I have to change? Ben’s recommendations basically had me sacrificing the oatmeal and eating more of the broccoli. The other adjustments were minor. He had me eating foods that God made and that were prepared with as little creaturely intervention as possible.
After nine weeks I dropped almost 20 pounds.
But I didn’t get skinny or weak. In fact, the evidence of any weight loss was mostly in my waist and nowhere else. In terms of athletic performance, I got stronger, and in terms of the rest of my life’s endeavors, I became more focused. Basically, what Ben mostly asked of me was to abstain from foods that I preferred to eat, not foods that were necessary for survival, or even from things that were tasty. There was no real fasting, but I did discover that on the occasion when I just couldn’t get to the office without first having breakfast, my capacity to endure a lack of food did not send me into a tailspin. The change in diet compelled my metabolism to become more efficient and to deal better with having less. The positive effect far outweighed any feeling of deprivation.
This article is really not about me, or an advocacy piece for Ben’s training techniques (though I have to say he knows what he is talking about). Instead it is about the Church’s Lenten practices of abstinence and fasting and how these are meant to change our souls. Dieting can change a person, and not only on the level of appearance, but also one’s psychological disposition—both positively and negatively. When I lack adequate calories, an anger rises up in me that I can only liken to the rage of Achilles. I wish that nutritional deprivation would just make me tired, rather than wanting to get into a fistfight over things as trivial as why the other priests in the rectory can’t seem to put their dishes in the dishwasher rather than leaving them in the sink. If physical and psychological changes can be identified, what is the impact of abstinence and fasting on the soul?
It is precisely in the revelation of our desires and base level instincts that the purpose of the Church’s practice of abstinence and fasting comes into sharper focus. Both practices, when engaged seriously, provoke our desires, and in this provocation cause truths about ourselves to emerge—inclinations and dispositions that might remain for the most part undisturbed and therefore unexamined in terms of their both overt and latent spiritual impact. I am normally rather restrained emotionally, but it evidently doesn’t take much to make me not only angry, but real angry. That is a truth that is absolutely essential for me to know, and knowing it I can better cultivate the discipline of anger’s contrary virtue. Without the experience of fasting and abstinence, I might just ignore that propensity, or worse pretend that it is not a very real dynamic in terms of my character—whether the disposition is provoked or not.
Some will emphasize the penitential character of abstinence and fasting as a punishment deserved and accepted because of one’s sins. I would not denigrate this emphasis. A firm purpose of amendment and willingness to change can and should be embodied in practices that are concrete and doable. At times we should accept a consequence for what we have done or failed to do.
However, if this is all that abstinence and fasting become, the potential for conversion these disciplines engender can become stalled. The two provide not just a penalty for sin, but show us who we are. As I said, in the performance of these practices you will see the truth about yourself in all its shadows and light. Abstinence and fasting are, in their own ways, experiences of adversity (no matter how small the actual deprivation and measured the discipline). And it is in adversity that the true content of our characters is revealed.
I think it is also important to remember in regards to these or any of the Church’s practices that what we might endure for the sake of the kingdom cannot be understood as supporting a kind of dualism that is somehow making the spiritual aspect of my existence better while freeing me from demands of physicality. The soul for the Christian is not akin to the Platonic soul that is like a genie in the bottle of a body, or Descartes’ ghost in a machine. As Aquinas so aptly put it, the soul contains the body, and that means the practices of the Christian life are about the totality of who we are. It can rightly be said that the Church’s disciplines, such as abstinence and fasting, are not only good for the soul, but also for the body—and we should not be averse to understanding them as such.
The Church’s presentation of Lenten abstinence and fasting as benefits to the soul has the potential to help us to deal with those desires that would otherwise likely remain unexamined, but it can also provoke some thought in regards to our culture’s ambivalent struggles in regards to food. Few cultures in the history of civilization have been as well fed as our own, and yet the availability of food has not in itself guaranteed health—spiritually or physically. The health and fitness industry promotes food in a manner that might be described a homage to our culture’s Puritan ancestry. For some, food is dangerous, almost poisonous, something that inhibits human flourishing and therefore must be strictly managed. Our proclivity toward controlling its potential impact can only be described as religious. The ideal body looks like an ecorche, which is really an image of starvation rather than health.
On the other hand, we revel in food with a sybaritic delight that would offend an Epicurean. Food is not only for sustenance and survival, but it is also entertainment via the Food Network. Shows that highlight “extreme couponing” display vast quantities of foodstuffs purchased for only a few dollars and carted away by folks with an aura of athletic triumph. Eating becomes a sport as “food fighters,” such as the diminutive Takeru Kobayshi, are acclaimed for heroic attempts to eat more than anyone else. We love to indulge and then accept our penance as it is experienced vicariously for all to see in the punishing ordeals imposed on the corpulent bodies of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”
The Church’s practices of fasting and abstinence might be accepted as a kind of “contra mundi” to our culture’s bi-polar relationship with food. In both we discern and discover that food need not be the primary object of our desire or an end in itself. Nor is it a poison that must be regulated lest we completely lose control. Instead we can learn to accept it as a means, rather than an end, and use it for the purpose of a divinely ordained mission that seeks to serve the highest aspirations of human flourishing for the sake of body and of soul.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.